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Chefs cooking for guests at an event
Photograph: Courtesy of Eric Kleinberg/Chicago Chefs Cook

Chicago chefs raise funds for humanitarian relief through food

Chicago Chefs Cook brings together local culinary talents to aid communities in times of crisis.

Lindsay Eanet
Written by
Lindsay Eanet

Since August 2022, more than 19,000 migrants, primarily from Venezuela, have been bussed into Chicago from southern states. As newcomers face their first harsh Chicago winter, chefs and hospitality industry workers are finding ways to support them.

“As someone who lives and works in the city and as someone who is Hispanic, I know there’s a lot of people who have been going through hard times since Covid,” says Rodolfo Cuadros, the chef behind Wicker Park pan-Latin restaurant Amaru and new plant-based taquería Don Bucio’s. “Anything we can do to give back, it helps.”

As an independent restaurant owner, Cuadros says he doesn’t have plenty of cash at his disposal, but he can donate time to his community. Last month, he joined Felipe Ospina of Sysco and other local hospitality leaders in cooking and serving food at a winter gear distribution event, the culmination of a month-long winter clothing drive which Ospina helped organize and many local restaurants, including Big Kids, Prairie Grass Cafe and BLVD Steakhouse, served as donation hubs.

Chicago Chefs Cook, a new non-profit “unifying Chicago’s chef community to provide humanitarian relief to those in need,” partnered with Ospina, Chicago Public Schools, Pilsen Food Pantry and mutual aid group Todo Para Todos on the coat drive. Now, on November 9th, CCC is partnering with hosts Pendry Chicago for ChefsGiving, a fundraising dinner supporting the Pilsen Food Pantry’s New Migrant Program. 

“It’s amplifying the Chicago chef voice through fundraising,” says Sarah Stegner, chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe and the Chef Liaison for Chicago Chefs Cook. 

Since CCC launched in March 2022 with a massive culinary fundraiser to support World Central Kitchen’s relief efforts in Ukraine, the majority of the events have stemmed from chefs coming forward and asking the organization to support their initiatives. And not only are the events about food, but the associated causes center on feeding people, primarily in crisis zones.

“What we’ve become over the last year doing these events is a first responder type of organization, where the chef community reaches out to us and says, ‘Hey there’s this issue happening, this is something that’s important to me, we know that your team can mobilize, what can you do to help this cause?’” says Eda Davidman, Director of Sponsorship for Chicago Chefs Cook. “The Chicago hospitality industry is really close and very supportive of each other, so when these events start to unfold, when we put out the call to action, the community just steps up with a resounding ‘yes, let’s do this.’” 

Chefs posing for a photo
Photograph: Courtesy of Eric Kleinberg/Chicago Chefs Cook

Over the past year and a half, Chicago Chefs Cook events and initiatives have raised more than $1 million to support feeding communities locally and around the world. Starting next year, CCC will also partner with the returning Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence; a beneficiary organization has yet to be announced. 

Adaptability has been important for the CCC team. For example, for a rapid response following the devastating wildfires in Maui, the team chose to organize an auction for the Chef Hui Maui Hospitality Relief Fund in lieu of an event. And when Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico in September of 2022, the CCC team and culinary partners put together a fundraiser for World Central Kitchen’s relief efforts in just six days. 

“We were actually at [the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture] when the hurricane hit, doing an event for the refugees in Tigray,” Stegner says. “We were like, ‘We have to do something.’ When we asked the director there, he said ‘Okay, what about next week?’ It was six days away, but we did it.”

While many of Chicago Chefs Cook’s events have responded to crises that have made major headlines—the war in Ukraine and the wildfires in Maui, for example—the events have also been a way to shine a light on disasters and conflicts the general Chicago public may know less about. Tigist Reda, chef and owner of iconic Uptown Ethiopian restaurant Demera, hosted the second CCC event, raising awareness about war and an ongoing humanitarian crisis in her home region of Tigray. The event featured a roster of more than 25 chefs, including heavy hitters like Beverly Kim, Joe Flamm and Erick Williams, and supported Health Professionals Network 4 Tigray, which provides much-needed medical aid to Tigrayans in the region and refugee camps in Sudan. 

“We do a deep dive into the humanitarian organizations on the ground that are local to these causes,” Davidman says. “World Central Kitchen is obviously something that everyone knows and they work with us, they feed people, so we’ve been partnering with them. But for Tigray, we had to really research who the organizations were on the ground, and Demera and Tigist introduced us to our partners.”

Similarly, Davidman says Michelle Durpetti, managing partner of legendary steakhouse Gene & Georgetti, reached out to the CCC team about supporting agricultural workers in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, which was impacted over the summer by catastrophic flooding. The floods devastated the agricultural-heavy region, killing livestock, destroying crops and damaging nearly a million wheels of cheese. In lieu of a large event, chefs representing 14 Italian restaurants hosted an intimate dinner series for relief efforts in the area. Eight other restaurants also offered specials to support the cause—including Demera.

“You have Ethiopian chefs supporting Italian chefs and now Italian chefs supporting chefs from Venezuela, and Venezuelan chefs supporting Hawaiian chefs,” says Darren Gest, Director of Communications for Chicago Chefs Cook. “It creates this really amazing community and center of support. The message that it sends is, ‘If I have an issue or I am dealing with something that’s important to me, I know that it’s also going to be important to my broader community, and that’s a very powerful thing.’”

Cuadros was one of the more than 60 chefs who participated in Chicago Chefs Cook’s first fundraiser for Ukraine. Now, he’s one of the six chefs lending their culinary vision for ChefsGiving. 

“Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday,” he says. “We’re a transplant family to Chicago, we don’t have family in the area, so we try to invite people in our circle who don’t have anywhere to go, and this falls in line with that.”

A chef plating a dish at an event and a person about to eat.
Photograph: Courtesy of Eric Kleinberg/Chicago Chefs Cook

On November 9th, prior to ChefsGiving, Chicago Chefs Cook is hosting an invitation-only, “solution-oriented” and migration-focused panel at the Pendry Hotel, with speakers including Steve Wiley from the Pilsen Food Pantry, Victoria Infante from Chicago Public Schools, Ospina from Sysco, Laurell Sims from Urban Growers Collective and Chef Art Smith. A suggested donation for the event will go directly to the Pilsen Food Pantry's New Migrant Program, an initiative for individuals and families arriving in Chicago to help provide food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare resources.

“If we invest in the migrants that are coming in and make them feel welcome, the goal is for them to invest in the community,” Davidman says.

But tickets are open to the public and available for ChefsGiving, and in addition to the satisfaction of supporting the important work of the Pilsen Food Pantry, guests will enjoy their fill of delicious food and drink, including a happy hour with canapés created by Chef Manny Mendoza of Herbal Notes, a family-style four-course dinner and curated beverage pairings. 

“There’s certain events you do as chefs that feel like work,” Cuadros says. “This will not be one of them. It’s one you get to see your friends in the industry and are trying to make an impact in other people’s lives, so I expect all of us to put our best foot forward to raise money for a good cause.”

Cuadros’s contribution to the menu is an enticing herby, autumnal fall Inca salad with quinoa, maíz cancha (corn nuts), kabocha squash and an eneldo (dill) vinaigrette. His fellow chefs on this festive journey will combine holiday classics with some creative flexes. For the first course, Eden’s Devon Quinn and Dudley Nieto of Fat Rosie’s are offering pan-fried brussels sprouts and shrimp and fish ceviche campechano. Marcel Heiduk of Venteux and D’Andre Carter of Soul and Smoke will team up on the main event—turkey au vin and grilled pork loin with chestnut mushrooms and pomme purée. Pastry chef Felicia Mayden will provide a caramel apple swiss roll for dessert.

“A lot of times we’re trying to help people that would possibly work for us, so it’s also warming to know you helped someone who could get into this industry in the future,” Cuadros says.

Cuadros encourages Chicagoans who are unable to attend the event or who are not in the industry to still find ways to help, whether it be volunteering with a local food pantry or donating winter gear. 

“It’s something that you can actually be proud of because so much of our world is built around repetition, going to work every day, whether it’s your 9-5 or 11-10, whatever hours that you pull. There’s not many things we can do out of our routine that really mean something,” he says.

Chicago ChefsGiving will be held Thursday, November 9 at Venteux Brasserie, Cafe & Oyster Bar inside Pendry Chicago (224 N Michigan Ave). Tickets are $150 and can be purchased via Eventbrite. The ticket includes a $30 donation to the Pilsen Food Pantry’s New Migrant program. Donations are also being accepted directly through the GiveButter page.

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